By Kristin Kovacic
It’s winter; I’m in Sheffield, England, where I have accompanied my husband on a semester’s teaching exchange. I’m alone most days in our tiny temporary house, and I’m supposed to be writing, which I am doing (see, right now, I’m doing it). But frequently, I find myself walking out into the city by myself, with no particular destination except the pretense of an errand, and no one, not even my husband, aware of my whereabouts (although he trusts I’ll be home for dinner).
There’s an urge in me, call it procrastination (which may be its truest name), call it restlessness—but it feels like curiosity propelling me most days, to assess the forecast (always the same, cloudy and just above freezing, with a fifty percent chance of rainbows), to assemble the frumpy all-weather ensemble I have fashioned to survive an English winter (new Wellingtons, old leggings, wool skirt, undershirt, sweater, anorak, umbrella, backpack, bandeau) and to take a long walk down our quite steep hill (Sheffield boasts seven of them, and we are on top of the most perilous, requiring some courage to descend) in order to, I don’t know, look at England.
I haven’t been in the country since 1991, when we cycled for an entire summer all around the British Isles together. I feel as though the last time we were here, though we slowly traversed a great deal of the Old Sod—villages, towns, moors, downs, dales, shores—I didn’t really see it.
What was I doing? Trying to stay on my bike, for one thing, and to not get wet (pointless—our sleeping bags wouldn’t dry, and I believe there’s a twenty-five-year-old drop of Scottish rain still battering my inner ear). Dying for a decent cup of coffee (impossible to find in Britain then), and trying not to be angry at my husband, who seemed insensitive to my suffering (he enjoyed climbing hills and fighting wet winds—a true cyclist, which I will never be).
I was looking at my marriage, too, and brooding a lot, as my wheels reluctantly turned over whether it had been a good idea (we had been married five years by then) to marry so young, to hitch my ride through life so firmly to another person’s journey. Mostly I felt slow, slower than him, and he had to let me ride ahead to keep from speeding off and losing me entirely. My journal from the trip, useless as material, is a tedious record of such petty laments.
Now we’re married thirty (the sleeping bags dried). We’ve done a good deal more traveling, together and with our children, with stays in Italy, France, Spain, Miami, Qatar—on bikes and boats and planes and trains and automobiles; in tents and campers, houses, apartments, gîtes, and B&Bs. Traveling is at the core of who we are together, for better and for worse, with many stories and shared adventures (“The Day of the Bora (Croatia),” “The Night of the Avalanche (France)” to chew on as we approach the evening of our days together.
Though young, I’d traveled a lot before I married, too—to Yugoslavia, where my father’s family is; to Paris, where I learned French on a study abroad; to New York City, where I interned for a summer. I was a young bride for sure (just twenty-two), but I was also a woman who could speak a second language, had lived in major capitals, had been in love before, and was not afraid of new experiences. And we had them, the two of us, together, one after another after another. I’ve always thought of our trips as the best part of being us, of being married—having a faithful traveling companion.
But here, alone and on foot, in this new city, I start to wonder. A new kind of attention, like a compulsion, flows through me. What’s this all about? I’m fifty-two years old. I’ve been around the world. I’ve held jobs, published books, had babies and—and maybe that’s it. My senses suddenly feel electrified, as they did when I was pregnant, but here, now, when I’m menopausal and mostly by myself, sauntering through the muddy parks and sooty streets of Sheffield.
Sheffield! The Pittsburgh of Britain, most prosaic of industrial cities in the unsung heart of England. Orwell once called it “the ugliest town in the Old World.” Today I go out into its spitting rain with my old leather boots, heels hollowed by use and filled with mud, in my backpack. My ostensible destination is the cobbler’s, whose shop I smelled yesterday before I saw it. The essential oils of animals and humans, commingled with turpentine and polish, drew me up Ecclesall Road to peek into the doorway and reinhabit my childhood: my daily stop in Tony Minetti’s shoemaker shop in the Pittsburgh of America, where I checked the gumball machine for stray nickels and candy and occasionally picked up our family’s repairs, paying with dimes my mother wrapped in paper to keep me from worrying them out of my pocket.
Today I’m greeted by a brawny, red-faced man: Are you all right?—a Yorkshire formality I no longer hear as an expression of true concern. He has burnished cheeks and a genuine leather apron, just like the automaton cobbler stiffly turning in his shop window. He takes both my boots in one broad tarry hand, says I’ll need soles as well, hands me a paper ticket, and tells me to come back tomorrow. What time tomorrow? I sputter, aware of my strong accent of surprise, and he says, with a wink, We’re open until eight, and goes whistling back to his bench, buried in piles of collapsed loafers and Oxfords. I stand there for some awkward seconds, a few mechanical swishes of the window cobbler’s hammer, while I understand that he means to fix my shoes overnight, like a shoemaker in a fairytale.
I hold on to this wonderful idea, this ordinary magic, like a coin wrapped in paper, hesitant to spend it. I resolve to come back first thing in the morning, to test my fairytale theory.
And then I think about telling my husband the story, and worry that in the telling some of its wonder will come off; the mad idea of dashing down the hill at dawn to fetch my boots will reveal its true lunacy. Of course, for a man pounding leather all day, my boots are a trifling job, one more ticket in the till. My husband, though a poet, is a practical person who can replace a bicycle tire in minutes, and he will likely not be impressed. And he can pick up my boots any day of the week, swinging by on his bicycle on his way home from work.
And so there, in the cobbler shop, I start to put my finger on it, this … thing, this wandering I’m wondering about. What am I looking for? What do I think I’ll find? I imagine lobbing my magical story over the dinner table, then watching it sink into a mild anecdote, a trivial observation from an obviously dull day.
This, too, is marriage, an audience of exactly one, who comes to your show every night. I am generally mindful, however minimally, of my performance, and apologetic when I repeat myself (my husband, like a lot of men, has little tolerance for being told something twice). For thirty years, I’ve been careful of what I say, to not bore the person most likely to be bored by me. Why am I still brooding about this?
To console myself, I dash across rain-slicked Eccleshall to a chocolate shop, announcing its treacly name, Cocoa Wonderland, in deco pink and green. My ostensible reason (why do I always need a reason? who am I explaining this to?) is to search for some full-fat ice cream, for an old, ill friend we’ll see tonight and who, according to his wife, needs to put on weight. Surely, I think, Cocoa Wonderland will have it. A freckled young man with a blush of ginger beard pops up from behind some pyramids of bonbons. He’s wearing a striped, mauve apron (a recurring delight of England is the men—cooks and barmen, fishmongers and butchers—going about their work in their smartly striped smocks).
He informs me, with real regret, he’s terribly sorry, that he can only scoop me a cone, not sell me a tub, of Wonderland ice cream. But he can offer all varieties of delicious hot chocolate—Thick, Milky, Extra Milky, Spicy—and soberly suggests that if I haven’t had their authentic, traditionally prepared cocoa, then I have never really tasted chocolate at all.
Which, in my hyper-alert state, sounds like a serious question: Have I ever really tasted chocolate? I can’t exactly say. To be very certain, I order the Thick, a choice that pleases my young guide, and he directs me to an ample chintz armchair in the back parlor, where I can wait while he works.
Uncomfortably damp, I sink down and start peeling off layers of my get-up, blooming into the chair like a cabbage rose. I listen to the chemistry of chocolate—liquid, metallic—and take in, with each breath, slightly more of the dark brew he’s concocting, carefully and exclusively for me. Maybe because I’m sweaty or maybe because I’m alone, it smells like sex, like desire ripening in an intimate space.
Because I am alone. The idea continues to confront me, like a persistent mist. As I’ve rolled through the years, of a life abundantly accompanied, what else have I missed? What smells and tastes and sounds and whimsical conversations? What carnal acts and dramas? Inhaling the intoxicating chocolate gas, I consider that I’ve had precisely one lover over the past thirty years, a fact I’ve never felt proud or ashamed of—the condition of long marriage. But is this a condition, like blindness or anosmia or some other sensory limitation, my entire being has adapted to? Are there sensory pleasures, like this one, I might die without experiencing, or worse, never be able to feel?
I turn the idea over, in the swoon of Cocoa Wonderland, a swoon that doesn’t flare up into lust; I don’t want to molest the sweet young chocolatier or anyone else (that I can think of). I just want to sit here with it, my condition, and nibble its bittersweet self pity.
Until at last, with a flourish from a silver tray, my enthusiastic new friend brings my cocoa in for a landing on the tea table beside me: dark brown pitch in a delicate rose china cup. Since I’m still the only patron of the Wonderland, there’s a breathless minute while he watches me examine, sniff, and taste the thick elixir. Alarmingly dense, like cake batter, the chocolate crawls slowly over my tongue and down my throat, an experience more like drowning than drinking.
Wow, I choke out.
And the bearded boy beams, leaning jauntily on the Victorian parlor’s mantelpiece, like a satisfied, life-sized gnome. He just knew I’d like real chocolate, loads better than what passes for cocoa in the markets, and as I try to find a polite method for sipping it—short of throwing back my head and upending the cup—he tells me about his studies; he’s a food science major at the university, one of its best departments, he’s about to graduate, already has a job lined up in Product Development at Yum!, have I heard of it?
The company that owns Pizza Hut and KFC is one that I, bona fide American, have heard of. I try to chat knowledgeably about American food trends (pork bellies, bacon novelties, fantasy potato chip flavors like Biscuits ‘n Gravy), the unchecked proliferation of Starbucks, and as I warm up, literally, my American drawl thickening, my digestive tract radiating like a pot-bellied stove, I feel an accelerating freedom of speech, of talking ad libitum, not subtly checking my opinions with my life’s partner, my husband, for accuracy and corroboration. I am full of chocolate, full of myself, and I happily blather on in this way until I whip out my sad little tale of slogging through Britain on a bicycle, searching in vain for a proper cup of coffee.
The boy barks out a laugh. Coffee! There’s a Costa on every corner! He squints at me with puzzlement. How long ago?
Examining my muddy dregs, I have a hot realization. 1991, I have to confess, probably before you were born.
Just a year before, he says, encouragingly.
I swallow the last gob, thick as regret. Armoring up again in my comical outfit, I feel already slightly sick, like Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and probably already a joke the young man is cooking up to tell his mates at the pub tonight—the crazy old American lady who was surprised there was coffee in England.
Being married has largely spared me this, this singular shame, or at least it has divided shame equally between me and one other person, as we endlessly deflect and reflect each other—mirror facing mirror, odd couple. I can feel the beacon of the boy’s attention, and here, for once, I miss my husband’s corrective commentary (it wasn’t that bad; she’s exaggerating), which checks my wilder flights of storytelling and, normally, enrages me. Over a long, long union with shockingly few disputes, this unconscious habit, of policing my conversation, has been at the source of most of them.
As well as his inclination to leave a scene without ceremony, forcing me to follow backwards, trilling our polite goodbyes. I could use this talent now, as I extricate myself from Cocoa Wonderland, moving slightly less nimbly towards Sharrow Vale Road, along the Porter Brook, toward The Porter Brook Deli, where the food sciences major has assured me they’ll have buckets and buckets of artisanal ice cream.
I can hear the rushing water of the brook, one of Sheffield’s many small but mighty streams that pour down the hills and feed the five rivers that powered the mills and forges of its storied industrial past. A week ago, out for some exercise, my husband and I followed it. (A “walk” with my long-limbed mate is a rapid, almost military maneuver. Unable to match his gait, I march slightly behind, like a traditional Chinese wife, lungs heaving.) The brook took us to The Shepherd Wheel, a four-hundred-year-old mill, now a museum, where some of Sheffield’s world-famous cutlery was forged. Within its low stone house that appears elfin from the path, the enormous wheel churned, and the brute force of water, not a splashing but a pounding, came around in a terrifying rhythm; we could scarcely endure the noise. As my husband hustled us away, I tried to read the historical marker—about the workers who toiled there, days and years on end, deaf from the din, blind from the gloom, wet hands forged into claws.
Today Britain, as Napoleon famously derided, is “a nation of shopkeepers.” It continues to be every British person’s dream, according to The Guardian, to own a shop just like Cocoa Wonderland or The Porter Brook Deli where, with one step inside, I create a crowd with the other customer, standing in front of a display case crammed with cheeses. Tucked behind the case is yet another aproned man, trim in blue stripes, slicing a wedge of Stilton with a wire. I can practically touch the walls on both sides of the deli, lined floor to ceiling with crackers and biscuits, mustards, jams, and chutneys.
Though I see no ice cream, I wait my turn to ask, not wanting to rudely empty the shop in one go. But the deli man is thrilled by my request and invites me behind the counter, where there appears a slender door, through which we enter a smaller, darker room, hung with aging cheese and curing sausage. It occurs to me that my sister’s newly remodeled bathroom in America, which has an antechamber for washing up and a foyer for the toilet and a back room, with seating, for the shower, is considerably larger than The Porter Brook Deli.
The deli man flicks a light inside a miniature fridge, heretofore invisible, revealing several shelves of wee, colorful tubs. With great care he picks up each of the palm-sized pints and announces its flavor—some Asian and strange (Jasmine, Lychee & Rose, Black Sesame), some Yorkshire and plain (Strawberry, Chocolate, Vanilla). One of the flavors he describes as simply “Ice Cream.”
I laugh. No flavor?
And the deli man crows, Cream is a flavor! His wide smile sparkles in the mini-fridge light.
Ice cream is a flavor. Had I not asked, had he not illuminated and humored me in professional patience, I would never have known this rather basic fact of the universe. Triumphant, I buy four tiny tubs—Lemon Ginger, Chocolate, Strawberry, and Ice Cream—for my friend, hoping one of them will suit, imagining each offering its own small pleasure.
I know. I know. I’ve wasted half a day on this errand, the mission of an afterthought, profligately spending time (and money) in a way my husband will never understand. I am embarrassed, even here in my own writing, to set the events of this squandered day down. Were we together, none of this frivolous chasing, this bantering with mongers, this dallying, would have happened, except, perhaps, the five-minute stop for the boots. My husband is good at accomplishing things, quickly and efficiently; he can charge through a grocery store (where they also sell ice cream, he’ll likely point out) like a running back, lap me on a bicycle, write an entire book in the time it takes for me to compose a shaky page. By comparison, I’m a dawdler, an idler. I’m slow.
In comparison. In comparison I have lived my life, much more than half of it now, to this one person: quick, handsome, stoic, focused. Quiet, wise, impatient, strong. I am none of those things or, more precisely, I have some portion of those qualities in comparison, and of others I have a surplus: sociability, curiosity, generosity, languor. In marrying him, once upon a time, I halved my life and doubled it. I am some measure of myself and some of him, and together we are a book of marital history, which we read from, occasionally, at parties (when we stay long enough to tell a few, well-polished tales).
Separately, though, it occurs to me now, I continue to brood, have always brooded, turning the heart’s wheel around those questions, who am I, who are you, what are we, the terrible knowledge crashing and receding. Here I am, finally witnessing my own private England, and yet I’m still mulling our differences, whining to no one but her journal, like the grumpy girl on her bicycle.
Separately, I have to imagine, he broods, too, has always brooded. As he’s forced to watch my ass from behind, wobbling up a steep hill; as he waits for me at a crossroads, cooling his heels; as he endures my circular chatter.
And here we are, arrived to see our old friends: Don, pale and nearly skeletal, sits by a window, pair of binoculars in his lap. His wife Margaret, hale and still chic at eighty, bustles about their small apartment, assembling the “bits and pieces” of our tea. We’ve known and admired this couple for twenty years, from long stays in the small village in France where they lived for decades and where we camped every summer we could afford it. But we haven’t seen them for almost seven years, during which time we sent our kids to college, and Don—once an indefatigably merry Yorkshireman, championship talker and rugby player—collapsed into dementia, and they returned to England for the Health Service.
Now Don stares morosely into his lap (he’s forgotten the purpose of binoculars and simply fiddles with the apparatus). It’s in his hands that I can see the vestige of his old, kinetic energy. Not so long ago, were you to idly mention that you needed a new table, he would leap up to his woodpile and assemble one for you. His mind has forgotten nearly everything, but his hands recall their mission, turning the dials, measuring the length of the strap.
At the table, Don worries his napkin into a mushy ball, occasionally muttering nonsensical phrases, and we carry on catching up with Margaret, updating children and grandchildren, trying hard to show Don, with our eyes and by saying his name as often as possible, that he is part of this warm reunion. But he is lost to us, and the sad interiority on his face, the mumbling, suggest he understands how far adrift he really is. I swallow some tears with the canapés, and Margaret, frequently darting into the kitchen, is, I suspect, shedding a few there, too.
Throughout our meal, Margaret soothes her husband’s hands, filling them with crackers and olives and other foods to mangle, holding them down when his fidgeting threatens a plate. She calls him darling and luv, as she always did, but more maternally now. Their witty marital bickering, which we always enjoyed and sometimes imitated, is years behind them. They’ve been married sixty years. She encourages him to eat, but he doesn’t. Come on, now, darling. Look at the lovely salmon.
And in these moments my husband and I are cast out, to our own coupling, silently sharing a roll, avoiding the obvious. If Margaret were not able, or willing, to care for Don so constantly, so intensely, he’d be strapped to a wheelchair in a ward. Still, it’s not clear how much longer she’ll be able to do it. They face a short future together, each day slightly worse than the last.
The English winter day fades rapidly at the window, and Margaret hustles out dessert before Don gets too tired to sit. Tarts for us, and the lovely ice creams Kristin has brought for you, Don. We watch as she tenderly feeds him a bit of each, dipping his spoon into Lemon Ginger, Strawberry, Chocolate, and Cream. His dear face comes alive for a few, brief moments, anticipating the sweetness of each bite—he likes all the flavors, but especially Cream—with his mouth puckered up, like a kiss.
We make the drive home to our hilltop, scanning the right side of the road for the harrowing oncoming traffic, grimly digesting the evening. True love is not endless, as they tell us in fairy tales. It is relentless, like the Shepherd Wheel. Or, more accurately, like the bent, clawed souls with their noses to the grindstone, some of us continue to do it—this brooding, this soothing, this work. And some of us, maybe one of us, won’t.
Are you all right? my husband asks me, once we’re settled into bed. And unlike a baker or a cheesemonger or a cheerful cobbler, I know he truly means it, and that he means much more. It is the longstanding prelude to our lovemaking, this question, setting us off on our most intimate journey together. It means that he saw it, too, Margaret’s work, the work of love. It means that he’s ready, as am I, to put his shoulder to the wheel.
KRISTIN KOVACIC teaches writing in the MFA program of Carlow University and at Winchester Thurston School. She edited Birth: A Literary Companion (University of Iowa Press), and her chapbook of poetry, House of Women, was recently released in the New Women’s Voices series of Finishing Line Press.